“A man becomes a critic when he can’t be the artist he wants to, just like a man becomes an informer when he can’t become a soldier.”
I will be the first to admit that I did not think BIRDMAN OR (THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE) would work at all when I first heard about it. An absurdist comedy from the man responsible for some of the most bleak, yet beautiful dramas I had ever seen (BABEL, BIUTIFUL) did not seem like a smart idea to me. Not only has Alejandro González Iñárritu succeeded in his ambitious endeavour though, but he has actually made what is arguably the finest work of his career, as well as one of this year’s most dizzying yet exhilarating films to watch.
The success of BIRDMAN hinges on the success of numerous other factors, but none more so than the central performance of the film by Michael Keaton. Keaton, a well known actor who reached the height of his fame when he played a superhero but was never able to reclaim that level of success again after he turned down a hefty pay check and left the franchise, plays Riggan Thomson, coincidentally also an actor that was once revered for playing a superhero in the movies but who struggled to maintain the public’s interest in subsequent projects. Riggan has sunk a great deal of his own money into staging a play based on Raymond Caver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” on Broadway in an attempt to reestablish himself as a serious actor and to regain relevancy in the public realm once again. Coincidentally, Keaton is doing the exact same thing with his performance, whether intentionally or not, in this movie (only without the personal investment part). This bit of meta filmmaking alone makes BIRDMAN already far beyond cool before it even gets started.
And once it does get started, watch out because it does not stop for anything. BIRDMAN is meant to look like one continuous shot for its entire 2-hour runtime. As the camera weaves in and around the maze-like madness behind the scenes of this Broadway theatre, it falls in and out of numerous bold colour schemes and dramatic tones, shifting between the darkly comic and the just plain dark. The technical mastery of this incredibly tricky cinematography, as executed by Emmanuel Lubezki (the genius behind GRAVITY and THE TREE OF LIFE), is matched only by the brilliance of the ensemble cast, including Emma Stone, Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan and Zach Galifianakis. To ensure the proper momentum of these long, uninterrupted takes, which sometimes go as long as 10-15 minutes, everyone both in front of and behind the camera, must be at the top of their game. There is no room for error and from the looks of it, nary an error was ever made.
The controlled chaos of the film itself is mirrored in the action taking place on screen. By taking on this play, which he also adapted and decided to direct, Riggan has chosen to juggle a great deal of balls in the air at once, perhaps too great even. To add to his stress, when one of the actors in his play gets hit in the head with an overhead light, he must be replaced. After concluding that most of the talented actors who could play the part were all busy working on their superhero franchises, Norton enters as a popular stage actor named Mike, who also happens to be seeing the play’s female lead, Lesley (Watts). In addition to having to direct the incredibly difficult and unreliable Mike just days before the show goes into previews, Riggan must also deal with his needy girlfriend, Laura (Riseborough), who is also in the play, his recovering addict and incredibly jaded daughter, Sam (Stone) and his neurotic manager, Jake (Galifianakis), who is constantly worried the play will be a disaster. Amidst all of this pressure, Riggan is grappling with his own self doubt about the play, his abilities as an actor and eventually, his own sanity. (Warning: BIRDMAN is sometimes so bewildering, you too might find yourself questioning your faculties.)
While BIRDMAN itself is a masterclass in filmmaking, it is also a biting critique on the state of filmmaking today and the predominant obsession Hollywood has with superhero movies. Throughout the film, Riggan is tormented by his past time playing a caped crusader. On the one hand, he was never more beloved by so many then when he played Birdman; on the other though, audiences have never fully embraced him in any other part because, after donning the cape for three subsequent Birdman movies, they don’t really want to see him in anything else. Like Keaton, Riggan turned down a hefty amount of cash to return to the series for a fourth time (Keaton didn’t return for the third), and journalists still ask him about little else to this day. It would seem that no matter what Riggan does, he cannot shake his Birdman past, and as the film goes on, he begins to wonder whether he even should bother trying to.
The truth is that, after a certain age, we all have our own Birdman looming over our shoulders. We all have a time in our lives that broadly defined us and whenever we try to do something different or to recapture some of our former glory, there is a little voice that tries to convince us what a colossal waste of time that is. If we were to listen to that voice though, we would never surprise ourselves. And if either Iñárritu or Keaton had listened to that voice in their heads, there would be no BIRDMAN. I guess what I’m trying to say is embrace your inner Birdman and embrace this fantastic film too while you’re at it.